Killer Mike and El-P are sitting in a back room at SIR Stage 37 on Manhattan's West Side killing time before their set in New York City last night, where they will run through material from their first collaborative album, Run The Jewels, later in the evening. The duo has been alternately touring the world and holing up in various studios knocking out the followup to that album for much of this year, a project that they've described as "tougher," "meaner" and more "relentless" than the original. But despite the raw energy that El and Mike explode with on record and on stage, the two are very laid back as they talk about the progression and direction of what's so far referred to as Run The Jewels 2.

"I think this time we just tried to make a classic second rap album, if that makes any sense," El says. "A classic second group album where there's a little bit of growth." It's a new slant on a familiar direction for the duo, and underlines the statement that they've decided to make with this record: Killer Mike and El-P are no longer looking at Run The Jewels as a one-off project, or a combination of two solo artists for a series of songs. With this sophomore album, they're looking to put themselves up among the greatest groups in hip-hop history.

And they've got plenty to talk about. Though the album was already done before the civil unrest that has gripped the country truly took hold earlier this month, Run The Jewels has always incorporated political and social themes into their music, and this project is no different. Before they took the stage, Killer Mike and El-P sat down with XXL to talk about their new album, the protests in Ferguson, Mo. and what American citizens need to do better in this country. —Dan Rys

run the jewels

XXL: What was different about making this second album as compared to the first?
El-P: I think this time we just tried to make a classic second rap album, if that makes any sense. A classic second group album where there's a little bit of growth. We didn't want to make the same record twice. There's a lot of the same vibe and a lot of the same energy, but there's different energy as well on the record. You know, we went in on a couple more ideas on this one and just tried to make something that would grow. We've been doing what we've been doing individually, and we've had a lot of time to craft an arc for our careers—if you listen to Killer Mike's catalog, there's a direction, and it's established, and the same thing with my catalog—but Run The Jewels is new. Run The Jewels is like a new-born baby, and I would say on the first one, you know, it was what it was. This one, there's some other step being taken.

I'm very proud of it; I really love this record. This record, to me, we fought a little harder for it, I think. We thought about it a little more, just in the sense that, we're doing this for us, just like the first one. It was really just our own mischievous joy of doing a record. And this one was the same way, but we were like, yo, if we're gonna do this again, if we're gonna step in to this again...'cause we didn't really expect that. We kind of expected it to be sort of an in between project. We didn't necessarily expect that we would be following it up right away, but we just had so much fun doing it, the response was so good and we were feeling energized by it, so I think that we both thought, okay, well let's step to the table, let's see where we can take it a little bit further. So I don't really wanna know, who knows. I can't say; we're just the dudes that made it. Ultimately it's gonna be up to the people. But I think you're gonna hear something a little bit meaner, a little bit grimier with this one.

And I think also there are a couple more moments of introspection. We went in a little bit further on a couple more ideas on a couple more songs. I couldn't really define it for you except to say that I don't think it's the same record we made last time, I think there's something else going on with it. And I think everything you might have loved about the last record is there, we just went in a little further, I think, on this one. We really sat down and talked about it a little bit more, and it took a longer time to craft because of that. So hopefully that paid off. I'm really excited about it.

Killer Mike: It's meaner, it's darker, it's hungrier, it's funnier, and there's also—which we didn't know going into it—there's a line of substance and morality that I think we both brought from our individual careers that meshed in a new way here. I think that some of the records that are on here are perfect for the times we are entering right now, unfortunately for the times, but fortunately they do give voice to those times. And if you look at great groups—whether it's People's Instinctive Travels to The Low End Theory, whether it's Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik to ATLiens—there's a level of depth that great groups reach. And I think that we took this album, for us, we did that. We ascended to the next plateau, hard-fought. Rather than ascended, actually climbed to the next peak on the mountain. But definitely well-worth it once you get there and look.

Because, you know, this is opening yourself up for examination, some of the things we addressed here. I'm very confident in it, and I think it's gonna grab people in a way that they weren't even looking for, and I think that this further solidifies that Run The Jewels is a group, and is gonna be mentioned amongst the greatest rap groups of all time.


El, you had mentioned that you guys had looked at the first project as an in-between, one-off type of thing. Now do you see a real future as a duo, almost a second career for each of you guys?
El: We're already on number two.

KM: This is Loggins and Messina, baby! [Laughs]

El: Really what I meant by that was that we hadn't really planned on anything beyond just doing that record. We didn't have any idea, we didn't know, we were just sort of going with our gut, and then we planned on doing another one. So even just going into the fucking thing with a plan was a different idea, you know? And it reflects in the way we recorded the record, it reflects in the way the record came out, and I think we're having the time of our lives. So that's really just it—I'm not gonna turn away from something that's this fun. We just wanted to make sure that on this record we didn't wear out our welcome for ourselves with what we were doing you know what I mean? Because we both care about our individual solo music very much. So to take this step into it, we had to have an idea, and we did. And I think we pulled that off. So I don't really see any reason to stop. And even when we do make our own records, we'll be involved with each other doing that.

KM: Absolutely.

El: But the Run The Jewels shit has captured people in a way that maybe even our solo stuff has never done in some realms. And it's exciting to be a part of that. For us it didn't seem right for us to turn away from that. And it's genuine with us; it wasn't a calculated thing, it's like, man, we're having the time of our lives rapping our asses of with this shit, so what would be the next thing? But we're going, man. We're only ever gonna do what feels right. So whether or not this is the second and last album or whether it's one of 10, I don't know. But we haven't hit a wall, so we'll see. Who the fuck knows?


Mike, you mentioned that there were themes and elements of the record that are, unfortunately, appropriate for the times we're walking into right now.
KM: We have a very, very powerful piece that deals with the murder of a citizen by a police officer. Before Ferguson ever happened, before Eric Garner ever happened. We had this one beat at three o'clock in the morning, we had been trying to figure out what to do with the beat. I don't even know if we were doing shrooms that day, I know I was high as hell though.

El: [Laughs] It's hard to keep track.

KM: I had smoked, yeah. My wife and our friend were up in the studio, and I remember [El was] asleep or something, we were in the big house, and Taco was engineering, and this verse just sorta started coming out. It's powerful. It's powerful. It doesn't solve any problems, it doesn't cure any disease, but it gives testament to moments that are really happening across the landscape of America, and these stories deserve to be told. It's a very powerful piece, and El came after and dropped another powerful perspective about the same story I started with. And I just think, overall, there are few moments on this record—not few like small, but just very key, if you look at this record as a cinematic thing, there are very key moments—that deal with the angst that the American public is dealing with, and the unrest, and just the seething, bubbling thing that's rising up in this country. And I'm personally proud of us for dealing with it.

El: Quite honestly, it's the type of shit that we just kind of talk about in general in our music anyway. So it's kind of one of those weird things that just happens to, unfortunately in a weird way, line up with what's going on. We are always, in our own art, have always thought about this sort of stuff and discussed different aspects of the struggle of existence and the push and pull of power and powerlessness. And I think there's a rebellion and an anger in our record that really... I'll put it this way. With all this shit poppin' off right now, there's records where we're like, "Fuck, we should just drop that shit right now." But we're not gonna, because look, these things will always be fucking happening. Sometimes what you're doing happens to match up with that, sometimes it doesn't. It always matches, it's just whether or not everyone else is paying attention.

So there's that in there. Me and Mike really intersect philosophically, in a general way, in the sense that we both are, in some abstract way, up against something. In the way we're looking at it, there's an adversary, and it's not a rapper. [Both laugh] Although we talk that shit, too, just for fun. But the adversary is something bigger, and it's something more pervasive and more powerful than any sort of light concept. And it's affected our minds and our music throughout our careers. So I think we really kind of in certain points of the record, we came together on that. Whereas I think we did a little bit of that on the first one as well. So it's not radically different in that sense, but we just went in on a couple different angles on this one, and there's a lot of straight up punch you in the face shit, too, which I think is really the basis of what Run The Jewels is. [Laughs] 'Cause we're talking about all the heavy shit, but really the reason why we're talking about that is because everybody already knows that Run The Jewels is gonna come bustin' through the wall like Jumanji.

KM: A fist to the face is fuckin' Folgers. Top o' the mornin'. [Laughs]


Both of you have spoken thoughtfully on the subject of what's going on in Ferguson right now. Do you think hip-hop is doing enough to address what's happening in this country?
KM: I don't feel like we as American citizens are doing enough. Hip-hop be damned.

El: Hip-hop is not responsible to fuckin' address all the ills of society.

KM: Hip-hop does enough because hip-hop raps about this shit all the fuckin' time.

El: I'm more pissed off at country music. [Both laugh] Where the fuck is country music?

KM: We need y'all! Y'all got the guns legally! Come on, man!

El: Come on, man, where's country music in all this shit? [Laughs] You might hear a rapper say some shit, you never hear the fuckin', whatshisname, none of those motherfuckers. Everybody's such a Libertarian, "Oh, it's the government tyranny!" Where are you country motherfuckers when some real shit is going down with people who don't have any money?

KM: Yo, we need to take that shit back to the outlaw movement. We need Waylon, Willie and Johnny. Like, we need Willie Nelson with a joint on our side like, "Fuck the police." And I know he's down. Willie Nelson's my idol, he knows that. Shouts out to Willie Nelson.

You guys gonna collaborate with him?
KM: Man, I would fuckin' love to. You talk about a dream record, man? High as FUCK. I'd like to say though, just as Americans, we are doing a shit job of valuing our Constitution. We're doing a shittier job at making sure that the people that work for us honor the words of our Constitution. And we're doing an even shittier job at not letting racial, class and economic differences not get in the way of us not doing a better job of making sure everyone's Constitutional rights are protected. What we see happening with police and citizens in this country is not about race, it's not about class, it's not about any of those things as much as it is about that we now have rogue police departments that are in direct defiance of the United States Constitution and a threat to any American anywhere based on that is a threat to every American everywhere.

The thing that has bothered me the most outside of the initial killing of Michael Brown has been that there has been no condemnation at all of all of the violations of the Constitution—
El: Who the fuck do you think armed the Ferguson police with all the military gear? I mean, who the fuck is gonna condemn them?

KM: Not the government.

El: It's not like they bought that shit at a fuckin' tag sale. That shit was fuckin' delivered to their doorstep.

Previously: Run The Jewels Signs To Mass Appeal, New Album Drops Oct. 28
Run The Jewels Call Their Next Album “Relentless” And Name Their Favorite Adult Swim Shows
Community Outreach Is Important To Run The Jewels
Future, Run the Jewels And More Are Featured On Adult Swim’s 2014 Singles Program